Next Fest 2017: Lemon, by David Bax
“It’s time for a new you. The old you doesn’t work anymore.” This specific sentence is spoken by Isaac (Brett Gelman) a struggling actor, as a part of commercial in which he isn’t wearing any pants. The line is not just a summation of the entire mission statement of advertising; it’s clearly about Isaac as well, in a bitterly funny way. That sardonic tone is the essence of Janicza Bravo’s Lemon. The accepted portmanteau for this type of story is tragicomic. But Lemon, Bravo’s first feature film, can’t seem to get the tragedy/comedy balance right.
Isaac, formerly a mildly successful New York stage actor, has moved to Los Angeles to try his hand at television and movies but has met mostly with frustration. Now he lives unhappily with his longtime girlfriend, Ramona (Judy Greer), books meager commercial jobs through his excitable agent (Jeff Garlin) and teaches acting classes to younger actors, some of them on the cusp of making it big (Michael Cera) and others for whom Isaac predicts nothing but failure (Gillian Jacobs). Neither type of student pleases him.
Where Bravo’s most evident talents lie are in framing, art direction and mise-en-scene (also, there’s a really cool and simple practical time-lapse effect she repeatedly uses, in which the camera lingers on a room or wall while the lamps fade up or down on a dimmer to signify hours passing). Now, obviously, there are cinematographers, art directors, prop departments and many more folks aiding in these areas behind the scenes but, when all of it works together so well, the auteurist in me insists on chalking it up to the director. Lemon has the symmetry of Kubrick and his latter day acolytes like Wes Anderson but with a lived-in warmth that feels more inviting, more tactile and, when called for, more pungent. It’s like living inside a family-friendly 1970s sitcom except everything is going to shit.
In addition to the name actors I’ve already listed above, Lemon boasts a seriously impressive roster. Megan Mullaly, Nia Long, Jon Daly, Rhea Perlman, Fred Melamed, Martin Starr, Rex Lee and Marla freaking Gibbs all show up. And while many of the laughs go to Cera’s egotistic world traveler who starts every story with “In Barcelona…” or “Two summers ago, when I was in Japan…”, the standouts are Shiri Appleby as Isaac’s sister, who is perpetually on the phone planning some sort of party, and veteran character actor David Paymer, as a friend of Isaac’s parents who supplies some of the film’s rare moments of honest, soulful humanity.
Unfortunately, Lemon isn’t about any of these characters. It’s about Isaac. Ultimately, Bravo seems to assume we’ll sympathize with him for the sole reason that he is the protagonist. But, though he does suffer a never-ending parade of humiliations, there’s little reason to feel that he deserves any better. In effect, Isaac is the same as any angry white man leaving nasty comments on the Internet. His unhappiness may be genuine but it’s also mediocre and commonplace; it’s nowhere near bad enough to excuse the way he acts out with threats of violence against Ramona or racial slurs. Speaking of the latter, the entire comedic premise of the white man who’s clueless around black people has far worn out its welcome and is especially difficult to enjoy given the resurgent visibility of white nationalism in this country and the current administration.
There are hints that Bravo seems to understand the relative unremarkability of Isaac’s troubles. For instance, Appleby’s character has an adopted son with a truly disturbing personal history that, at least momentarily, puts Isaac’s life in perspective. There’s not enough of that, however, to make Isaac the butt of the joke. Lemon rests on our feeling sorry for him and there’s simply not enough to compel us to do so.